Mapping existing research into design briefs and workflows — to get more done with insights
Off to the races. Designers taking on new projects are hungry for insights — but existing research in repositories can feel a world away from new lines of exploration.
To activate repositories, research operations can connect into the spaces where design teams document and track their own work items. By mapping existing insights into new design projects, we can help shape designers’ thinking toward better outcomes, reframing projects toward a greater range of evidence-based customer needs.
When great designers start something new, they try to get their hands on relevant research before developing concepts for possible solutions. They marinate on anything from existing research on overall customer needs, to insights on current product performance, to past studies on the usability of related features.
After all, when a tech organization is continuously innovating, many product initiatives may not begin with generative research. And while researchers are often striving to insert themselves into the inception of new projects and features, the point where designers are staffed to an initiative also represents a key opportunity to spark and refine what’s next. Designers are often brought on when projects are still relatively undefined and amorphous — when there’s still some wiggle room for defining an impactful scope and outcomes.
Even with fancy research repositories in place, I’ve observed a ton of variability in the role of existing research during the early phases of design practice. I’ve seen designers charge ahead without even considering prior learning as an input, assuming that researchers will come in when a design direction is already fully formed. I’ve also seen established teams that are really humming, where early inputs from researchers happen naturally, as a form of trusted design collaboration. Grounded in the best of these practices, research operations can step in to formalize process for mapping existing research into the start of each design effort, rallying the resourcing needed to activate stored insights.
In many situations, designers will have no connection to the existing insights that could apply to their new projects. And even in situations where everyone had already been along for the ride during prior studies, design kickoffs still present an opportunity to connect, remind, summarize, and prioritize — to put individual learnings in a larger context.
As operations, the amount of effort needed to inject insights into designers’ early workflows can depend on the scope of what’s being designed, as well as the volume of applicable research. Effort can range from a quick export from a repository tool to a full on meta-analysis report (C4). From clarifying success for a planned product tweak, to including factors that could shape solutions, to highlighting potential pitfalls to avoid, to getting out ahead of big uncertainties and questions before they arise.
Using research repositories to drive regular, early connection with design can enable designers to do their best work — while making their lives easier. In addition to providing useful insights, early connection can introduce designers to researcher experts who have useful points of view on essential requirements and emerging questions.
Mapping existing research content into design briefs and workflows is about more than offloading repository searching and interpretive labor. For researchers who feel left out of opportunities to improve product ideas, these new operations can offer a pathway toward new impacts. This type of proactivity also heads off the common concern that by making insights more available via repositories, product people will find the ‘wrong’ insights for their needs. The consistent connection of existing research into new design projects can also grow organizational understanding about the durability of many insights, promoting use of the question: “what core research insights in this area have we not solved yet?” And as lead users emerge within a design community — taking ownership over making progress against insights — we can hold their work up on a pedestal for others to emulate.
Improving your insight operations
Get more done with your research community’s insights by:
- Getting started by tagging researchers to new design projects
As a first step, even before robust repository programs are in place, there’s real value in consistently matchmaking designers with researchers who know a thing or two about what they are about to tackle. Bring researchers closer to the conversations that they want to be in — starting as a low stakes q and a, with the optional opportunity to expand their involvement.
- Exploring formats for incorporating existing research content into design spaces
Collect examples of inputs to designers within your organization, identifying documentation where early contributions from research could be added. These may be tickets from a designops workflow, notes from a design staffing meeting, a new project collaboration board, or even formal design briefs. Define templated approaches for injecting insights, separating out background info, essential requirements, and related context. Clarify which insights are core problems-to-solve versus insights included as analogous learning. Highlight key uncertainties where exploring multiple directions would provide value. And make space to call out related UX debt — issues that have slipped through the cracks that could potentially be addressed in a given project.
- Experimenting with pilot design projects to refine approach
Identify sample design projects to try injecting existing research. Select projects with high risk and visibility, staffed with designers who are known for applying research effectively, in areas where existing insights could clearly add value. Gain agreement from related researchers and designers in advance, building new collaborations around incorporating prior learning. Check in on the process along the way and gather feedback to iterate the approach.
- Bringing other disciplines closer to the evidence-based design rationale
Use the addition of existing research to design documentation as another opportunity to reshare insights via ‘echo’ readouts (C3). Convene meetings to tell the story of the prior learning, discuss its implications, and iterate the injected research content based on feedback. Include product, engineering, and other disciplines to help reframe new initiatives toward known customer needs, driving conversations about valuable changes to scope. Provide a stage where researchers who authored key insights can share their points of view with product teams.
- Transitioning from pilot experimentation toward new operations
Gather wins and build the leadership buy-in needed to advance from sample projects to a recurring, formalized process. Connect with any product and design operations teams in order to agree upon triggers, steps, and staffing approaches. If these teams are not in place, discuss establishing ‘just enough’ formality in design workflow to enable research to provide consistent input. Seek staffing approaches that distribute responsibilities, with research serving as subject matter experts for existing insights, rather than sole owners for inserting existing research.
- Your idea here…
On the path from insight to product impact
Mapping existing research into design briefs and workflows is part of having envisioned solution ideas to address insights. It’s also related to maintaining awareness of insights as possible planning targets and getting to prioritized plans.
If you’ve read this far, please don’t be a stranger. I’m curious to hear about your challenges and successes getting existing insights closer to new design projects in your organization. Thank you!
- C3. Adding ‘echo read outs’ to re-engage product teams with research projects — and get more done with insights
- C4. Demystifying core product uncertainties by meta analyzing across existing research to date — to get more done with insights
- A2. Aiming for integrated research, not just a research repository tool
- B3. Fusing separate research teams’ roadmaps to enhance collaboration, efficiencies, and insight quality — and get more done with insights
- View list of all ‘Integrating Research’ posts (and upcoming topics)
- “I see them struggle, because to make their research consumable, is to turn it from a banquet into take away fast food. Every time we do that a researcher dies a little inside. But not doing that is hobbling the discipline, it’s making it something that is only consumable with the chef sitting next to you, telling you what the food means at each step of the banquet…” Brigette Metzler
- “As passionate research and insight professionals we tend to take ownership of what the insight means and how to apply it as a means of driving return on investment. However, if we are bold and brave enough to let go of this ownership then amazing things can happen. At a recent conference I attended, researchers from Samsung and SkyLabs both described their roles as tour guides of insight. They discussed how they led teams through insights and inspired next steps without dictating what those might be. This strategy is effective with stakeholders because it avoids psychological reactance (that very human desire to have autonomy and agency in what we do rather than to have to follow instructions).” Maria Twigge